Activist Judy Heumann led a reimagining of what it means to be disabled
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Judith Heumann, an important leader for disability civil rights, died yesterday in Washington after a brief hospitalization. She was 75 years old. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro knew her for some 35 years, and he's here with us to tell us more about her. Joe, thank you so much for joining us.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: So who was Judy Heumann, and why was she so important?
SHAPIRO: She was a founder and an icon of a civil rights movement that most people probably don't know about - the disability civil rights movement. It's won passage of laws that protect disabled people from discrimination. But Judy also demanded that we change the way we think about what it means to have a disability. And this goes back to the 1960s. She was saying, you're wrong if you think I wish I wasn't disabled. I've been in this wheelchair since I was a kid. This is who I am. My disability, that's not the problem. The problem is society.
MARTIN: I would love to know more about how she became an activist - I mean, how she became a public figure.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, well, she was 18 months old. It's 1949, and she contracts polio. Her mother had to fight just to get her into schools in New York City. And the law that says kids with disabilities are guaranteed an education - that wouldn't exist until 1975. When Judy got through college, she was trained as a speech therapist. New York City wouldn't certify a teacher in a wheelchair. In 1973, Congress passes one of the first laws to protect people with disabilities. But the Nixon, Ford, Carter administrations, they avoided implementing it. So in the spring of 1977, disabled people took over a federal building in San Francisco for 26 days. And disabled adults then, they were treated like children. They were expected to be polite, not take over federal buildings. And a federal official came to reassure them. And Judy, she wasn't having any of his promises. She's just 29, and here's what she told him.
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JUDITH HEUMANN: We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals. We want the law enforced. We will accept no more discussion of segregation. And I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I don't think you understand what we are talking about.
MARTIN: I just would love to know, before we let you go, about - you've spent a lot of time with her and you've written about how she thought about what it meant to be identified as disabled. If you'd just talk a little bit more about that.
SHAPIRO: I wrote a book about the disability civil rights movement. It's called "No Pity." And it was Judy who told me about the joys of being in a space exclusive to people with disabilities, when she went to a summer camp in upstate New York that was just for kids with disabilities. And it was the one place where she wasn't different. It was a disabled space, just like going to a women's college or a Black college. And it's where she developed pride and her self-confidence. She taught other disabled people to be proud of who they were.
But here's something else that she started talking about only recently. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer, and she hid it. When her hair fell out from the chemo, she wore wigs and hats. And she couldn't fool some of the women in her synagogue who recognized those hats. And she started to be more open. She said, look, my whole life, the first thing people notice is that I'm in this wheelchair, that I'm disabled, so I shouldn't hide a more invisible disability either.
MARTIN: She sounds like a remarkable person. So thank you so much for telling us more about her. That's NPR correspondent Joseph Shapiro. Joe, thank you so much.
SHAPIRO: Thank you for giving me the chance to talk about Judy.
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